Sex abuse lawsuits flood in as Catholic leaders in California seek redress from highest court

In California, lawsuits are on the rise – of middle-aged men, claiming they were sexually abused as children by a Boy Scout leader or a priest. A woman, now in her late 30s, detailing how she was allegedly assaulted at a foster care centre. A man who said he was abused while volunteering with the Salvation Army.

At least 750 of those lawsuits filed since January 2020 are against Catholic dioceses, and more than 800 people are filing to beat the Dec. 31 deadline, according to attorneys involved in the cases.

The year-end date marks the end of the state’s three-year “look-back window,” which allows plaintiffs to file civil lawsuits for childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the events took place. alleged took place.

Now, facing hundreds of lawsuits, a group of Catholic bishops are taking those challenges to the highest court in the land. Stating they faced a “potentially ruinous liability,” the bishops last month asked the U.S. Supreme Court to declare California’s lookback window unconstitutional.

“The review is essential now, before the Catholic Church in the largest state in the union is forced to litigate hundreds or thousands of cases seeking potentially billions of dollars in retroactive punitive damages,” according to the petition, which was first reported by the Catholic News Agency.

California created its new lookback window in 2019 under Assembly Bill 218written by then-Assembler Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego.

The bill opened a three-year periodfrom 2020 to 2022, which allowed plaintiffs to file sex abuse claims that exceeded the statute of limitations.

The law allows people under the age of 40 to file a complaint without any additional steps. Complainants over the age of 40 must obtain, through an attorney, a mental health evaluation that concludes “there is a reasonable basis to believe that the complainant was sexually abused in the ‘childhood “.

In 2002, the state passed a similar law creating a one-year window for people to file such claims. More than 850 people prosecuted the Catholic Church the following year, and 150 others sued other religious institutions and the Boy Scouts of America. The Catholic Church has paid more than $1 billion to settle the claims, according to the bishops’ petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several dioceses sold “vast tracts” of church property in the 2000s, the petition says. Some exhausted or waived their lawsuit insurance, and the church at the time believed the matter was settled.

“This assurance has proven to be false,” the bishops wrote.

Across the country, such lookback windows have faced and survived multiple state-level legal challenges. Actor Bill Cosby, accused of more than 50 sexual assaults over the decades, challenged them in California and New Jersey. Prince Andrew’s initial challenge at New York’s “look-back window” failed to convince a judge in January to dismiss his case.

Los Angeles attorney Paul Mones, who represents at least 75 people suing the Catholic Church and dozens more suing other institutions, said he expects “a flurry of filings” in the Last 60 days of the year before the expiry of the look-back period.

Among his cases, Mones said, included people suing the Boy Scouts of America, private schools, public schools, the Salvation Army, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

“There are few institutions that serve young people who don’t have a history of abusers who harm children,” Mones said.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a previous look-back window in California, but that one was specific to criminal prosecutions.

In this 2003 case, Stumble against Californiathe High Court ruled 5 to 4 that allowing California to criminally charge someone with child sexual abuse after the statute of limitations had expired “did punishment for past criminal behavior that … did not result in a such responsibility”.

In 2013 and 2018, then governor. Jerry Brown has vetoed similar proposals to create retrospective windows in California.

Prosecutions during the current window have targeted both religious and secular institutions. In California, more than 200 women and men sued an El Monte children’s center, alleging abuse between 1988 and 2001.

In Sacramento, two brothers filed a complaint the Capital Christian Center, alleging that they and three other former students were sexually abused in the early 1980s.

Rick Simons, a plaintiff’s attorney who handles cases against the Catholic Church of Northern California, said his oldest case dates back to the early 1960s. This litigant and others like him have never not sue during California’s 2003 lookback window because “he wasn’t ready,” Simons said.

“A year just isn’t enough time for some people to process things,” Simons said. “This time, maybe the parents are mostly gone. Many more people are sober.

“It was news in 2002 and 2003 that Catholic priests were engaging in systematic abuse. People hadn’t heard it on that scale,” he added.

The abuse cases against the Catholic Church during the current lookback window have been divided into three consolidated cases across the state: Northern California, San Diego and Los Angeles. In northern California, plaintiffs’ attorneys said more than 200 people had already filed lawsuits and another 800 were in the process of filing suits.

In San Diego, 80 people filed complaints and in Los Angeles, 473 people filed complaints.

“The (bishops’) petition is an attempt to strike down the law and a dishonest slap in the face to victims who have yet to come forward,” said Mike McDonnell, spokesperson for the group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. .

“It concerns us because it’s not a thing of the past, it’s a thing of the present and it’s absolutely a thing of the future.”

McDonnell said the sexual abuse claims not only test the financial resources of the Catholic Church and its dioceses, but also the insurers that cover them.

Insurers have expressed concern about the reopened statute of limitations and their financial exposure to far higher costs than expected when they originally issued policies for an organization, whether it was a church or a scout troop.

In 2019 alone, 14 states changed their laws to allow more time for child sexual abuse claims, and at least eight states reopened the window for abuse claims that had passed the statute of limitations.

Nationally, look-back windows have typically led to thousands of lawsuits. In New Jersey, for example, more than 1,200 sexual abuse lawsuits were filed between December 2019, when the state’s lookback window opened, and October 2021, when it closed. according to the Associated Press.

About two-thirds of those lawsuits in New Jersey named religious institutions. Lawsuits against schools accounted for about 14% and about 9% named the Boy Scouts.

Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, said in a statement that the focus on the Catholic Church in child sexual abuse legislation and litigation is “anti-Catholic bigotry.” “.

“It is a myth to claim that the Catholic Church has a monopoly on child sexual abuse: it exists in all institutions where adults interact with young people,” Donohue said.

“The Catholic Church in California has dealt with this issue twice. He should not be subject to another round of prosecution.

California’s Catholic Churches Paid among the highest dollar amounts for sexual abuse settlements of any state, according to a list of settlements compiled by the Bishop Accountability website.

The Diocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million to settle hundreds of abuse complaints in 2007and that same year, the Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy and paid 144 people a total of $198 million. These are the two highest colonies made by the Catholic Church in the United States

Bankruptcy is a real fear for the churches involved in this litigation, said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis-based attorney with an office in Los Angeles who represents child sex abuse plaintiffs suing the Catholic Church.

“They are among the most frequent offenders, so yes, they are the most exposed [financially]”, said Anderson.

Anderson said the church is banking on the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, as well as the justices’ own religious affiliations — six justices are Catholic, though one, Sonya Sotomayor, is in the liberal minority in the courtyard.

“I think that’s the only thing they can cash in after,” Anderson said. “This writ is truly the Hail Mary pass to the Catholic court.”

Nigel Duara writes for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company explaining California politics and politics.

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